Soundtracks to Tragic News

November 28, 2008

Exercising while listening to music and watching tragic news on CNN is a collision of dissonance.

Picture the scene: two dozen bodies bouncing along on cardio equipment in front of six health club TVs. I’m on the elliptical machine. Music blaring from my ear buds drowns out all other sound, even my panting breaths. My eyes are fixed on the seige at Mumbai, playing out in video images and closed-caption text. But my thoughts careen from one unrelated subject to the next.

The Taj Mahal hotel shudders with explosions and belches black smoke set to an inadvertent soundtrack, Death Cab for Cutie’s “Your Heart Is an Empty Room.” The song doesn’t fit what’s on the screen, though one line jolts me: Burn it down, till the embers smoke on the ground.

CNN reports that the death toll has climbed to one hundred and sixty, including an American man my age and his teenage daughter. The tragedy  mounts. It deserves my full attention but the familiar theme of mindless terrorism can’t compete with the sensory clout of music and elevated heart rate. The battle on TV is merely a foil, a distraction from my self-indulgent battle for fitness.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ Johnny Appleseed takes over with a guitar and organ intro that never fails to grab me. But its upbeat tempo belies a somberness: We think there is a soul, we don’t know. That soul is hard to find.

Drenched in sweat and chiding myself for staring at the TV, now showing the same images from India for the third time, I stride toward an imaginary finish line. The soaring vocals of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye, sung in Italian, carry me across in bittersweet triumph:

Quando sono sola
sogno all’orizzonte
e mancan le parole

I remember enough from six quarters of Italian a few years ago to understand the first four words and the last: When I’m alone I dream. . . words. Another explosion rocks the hotel, and a flock of pigeons flaps through the smoke.

Later at home I find a full translation:

When I’m alone
I dream of the horizon
and words fail

YouTube Preview Image